THE HISTORY of Cocteau’s theatre illustrates more clearly than other aspects of his work his belief that the new in art is necessary, that the artist is the man who opposes what is currently fashionable. The authentic artist counterbalances. He will often upset the traditional. Parade, Cocteau’s first work for the stage, was in direct contrast to the naturalist theatre of the dav. Years later, when Cocteau’s experimental writing for the theatre had been more accepted and when it had in fact created its own posterity and disciples, he returned to traditional forms, as in L’Aigle à deux tètes, strongly reminiscent of the romantic melodrama. What has often been falsely called a tendency toward insolence in Cocteau’s writings, is closer to a deeply-felt need for novelty, for contrast.
The bizarre concoctions of the earliest Cocteau: Le Boeuf sur le toit, of 1920, and Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, of 1921, were efforts to reanimate the French theatre that did appear lifeless during the year following the First World War. By its nature, the art of the theatre has to be a constant renovation, a constant experimentation. The public quickly tires of the familiar formulas. Cocteau embraced the theatre as an art which would permit him a startling use of magic and the unusual (l’insolite). Never in agreement with his own time, Cocteau created his own fashions, his own genres. But his tireless search for the new was never an expression of animosity for what was currently in favor. Cocteau is an inventor. He proposes something new, but it is not in the form of an attack. For more than thirty years, between Parade of 1917 and Bacchus of 1951, Jean Cocteau was associated with the theatre in Paris, and each work was the proposal of something new.
The theatre is the art of illusion. What we see on the stage is a lie not in the moral sense, but in the philosophical sense of appearance as opposed to reality, and in the aesthetic sense of fiction as opposed to history. This profound lesson of the theatre never ceased to hold and fascinate Cocteau. The actors in costume played parts, not themselves. This was a new sincerity, that of the role; a new activity, that of ceremony. As the actors performed, a personality was created on the stage which was the creation of the dramatist. An adventure was simulated, and the spectators believed in the simulation, and the spectators believed in the simulation as long as it lasted. The spot lights revealed another world, a luminous world larger and clearer than life.
As if it were a charm destined to form and justify his life, Jean Cocteau underwent the experience of the theatre in all of its aspects: words devised by the dramatist, make up on the faces of the actors, a public watching for two hours the enactment of pathos, of human frailty, of farcical behavior, of catastrophe. A place where all of this is projected by deception and tricks of light, sound, space, and action; where no one is oneself, not even the spectators because they too tum into intriguers as they watch.
On the stage, life becomes interpretation of life. The dramatic poet is an illusionist who makes us believe we are watching Phèdre’s jealousy, or Hamlet’s madness. Cocteau accepted easily all the rules of the theatre, as if they had been created for him: the effort to give to fiction a sense of truth, and the effort to find for an actor a new personality. His protagonists are men in search of their destinies, in search of the meaning of their lives. They are usually men who understand themselves imperfectly and who find, during the course of the action, someone to answer their questions, to offer them some explanation of the drama in which they find themselves involved. Orphée is helped by the female figure of Death and by Angel Heurtebise, incarnated as a window-repairer. The Sphinx, as a young girl, explains the enigma to Oedipe.
In the plays of Cocteau there is nothing comparable to Claudel’s faith which permeates the works of the Catholic dramatist. There is nothing as permanent as the theme of protest in the plays of Jean Anouilh. And there is no philosophy as clearly indicated as in the existentialist plays of Jean-Paul Sartre. There is no trace of what might be called a message. By comparison with such playwrights, Cocteau’s art is gratuitous, it is purely the art of the theatre. It is the enactment of enigmas, magic, incantation, as in the sphinx scene of La Machine Infernale, and the alphabet scene of Orphée. It is the dramatization of various forms of fate that subdue and imprison the human will. The word itself, machine, used twice in the title of Cocteau’s plays, implies the ingeniousness of the gods in trapping men, in making them into pathetic and helpless beings.
For the subject matter of his plays, Cocteau borrows abundantly from other dramatists, from mythology and history, but he gives to the borrowed theme a new swiftness, a tempo more in keeping with the jumbled precipitation of the twentieth century. His Antigone, for example, is a reduction of the Sophocles’ text, with a single figure representing the chorus and with Antigone’s farewell speech to Thebes resembling an aria. With each of his plays, Cocteau renovates some aspect of the theatrical art. He is instinctively a man of the theatre who is caught by the spell of the stage, by the lighting and the set as well as by the tense atmosphere in the wings, and who is also fully conscious of the perpetual risk of the theatre. He knows that each performance is a privileged moment that will be over with the final curtain, but that has the chance the following night to form again and cast another spell with the same brevity that characterizes danger.
Parade, of 1917, does not have the importance of a text. It is important in the sense of being a collaboration between Cocteau and Picasso, when the poet learned from the painter certain lessons that were to guide him thereafter. A sense of clairvoyance, first. Not clarity, but an illumination coming from the inner life of the spirit, a unity of spirit presiding over a strange assembly of beings and objects. This first art of Cocteau was quite in keeping with the new graphic art that was beginning to come from the ateliers of Montparnasse and Montmartre. Parade was one example of the graphic metamorphosis initiated by cubism and which was to be continued by surrealism. From the experiment of Parade, Cocteau learned also that inspiration must not protrude from the final work. Art must be a collaboration between a seriousness of theme and a lightness of form which is almost a disguise of the theme. This theory is in Cocteau’s sentence describing Picasso’s art: Arlequin habite Port-Royal.
Picasso was responsible for the sets, costumes, and props of Parade and Cocteau was responsible for the story, the characters, and the choreography. Choreographic notes replaced a text in Parade. The characters might have come from a music hall sketch: a Chinese prestidigitator, an American girl, acrobats, managers, a languorous horse. There were noises of dynamos, boat sirens, typewriters, and airplanes. There was pantomime, dancing, and music.
Le Boeuf sur le toit (1920) was also a mime performed by the Fratellini clowns, with music by Darius Milhaud and a set by Raoul Dufy. With Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel of 1921, the genre was an amalgam of play, pantomime, and dance. The text was spoken by two actors disguised as phonographs. Cocteau’s preface to the published text is a manifesto calling for a new poetic theatre in which the poet’s role is the discovery of the meaning of familiar objects surrounding him. The poet writing for the theatre should rehabilitate the commonplace and substitute a poetic play for poetry in the theatre. Music for Les Mariés was provided by five composers from the group of Les Six: Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger, and Taillefer. The marriage party was a picture of the familiar daily world.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus is the founder of the Orphic mysteries and the creator of the myth of Dionysos, the god who was dismembered and then resuscitated. Dionysos symbolizes the frenzy of living, the genius of individuality, the animation of nature in its multiple forms. Apollo, his brother, is the god of inspiration and of eternal beauty who presides over the spiritual world. Dionysos presides over the world of matter. But the two brothers are not enemies. They work together. They are both necessary. Apollo is the god of the Muses, and Dionysos the god of the Bacchantes. Orpheus, in his life and in his works, joins the two divinities: Apollo and Dionysos, man and woman, priest and bacchante, sun and moon. Orpheus gives expression to thoughts that are Apollonian and experiences Dionysian enthusiasm. When his wife Eurydice dies, he descends to hell where the infernal spirits give Eurydice back to him on the condition that he will not look at her as they are leaving hell. He does look, and loses her forever. Then his limbs are torn from his body by the Bacchantes.
Cocteau’s first original play of some importance was Orphée, written in 1925. The time of the action is today as well as an imaginary Thrace. Orphée is the national poet of his country. He has brought home a mysterious horse (the winged horse Pegasus was once the symbol of poetic inspiration) that dictates to him by means of a ouija-board an incomprehensible sentence: Madame Eurydice reviendra des enfers. Eurydice is in love with her husband. When she married Orphée, she left the club of the Bacchantes, presided over by Aglaonice who, furious with Eurydice, prophesied disaster.
When the play opens, it is obvious that the horse has bewitched Orpheus. He attaches great improtance to the slightest words given by the horse, and Eurydice is shocked and saddened by her husband’s behavior. She confides in a mysterious window-glass repairer called Heurtebise, who has the habit of calling on Eurydice each day. In reality, Heurtebise is an angel who is watching over the destiny of Orphée and Eurydice.
(One day when he was calling on Picasso, at his studio on the rue de la Boétie, Cocteau heard a voice say to him in the elevator: “My name is on the plate.” He read on the brass plate of the control lever: Ascenseur Heurtebise. Heurtebise became the angel of his poem and the angel in Orphée.)
Aglaonice succeeds in poisoning Eurydice who, before she dies, pleads with Heurtebise to bring Orphée back from his enchantment. Death, as a beautiful woman, takes Eurydice into the realm of Death. Orphée does lose Eurydice by looking at her, and is torn asunder by the Bacchantes. The last scene, in heaven, shows us the couple reunited.
Death, in Cocteau’s play, is represented as an elegantly dressed woman, because most people imagine her in the form of a skeleton. Mirrors are gateways to death for Cocteau because, if we look at ourselves in a mirror, we can see death working there as bees work in a glass hive. When Heurtebise points to the mirror as the way Orphée should take in order to find Eurydice, he explains that mirrors are related to windows:
Heurtebise: Voilà votre route.
Orphée: Où avez-vous appris?
Heurtebise: Les Miroirs? Ça rentre dans la vitre.
The play is the drama of poetry, the drama of those possessed by poetry. It is on the relationship between an artist and his inspiration. This inspiration is sometimes called his genius or his personal demon, which in this case is represented by the horse. When Orphée says at the beginning of the play that the horse enters his night and brings back sentences from there (Ce cheval entre dans ma nuit. Il en rapporte des phrases. . . .) we realize that the horse is the hidden subconscious of the poet. Every part of the play’s action is a commentary on the mystery of poetic creation. At times, Eurydice is the public when she fails to understand why the official poet gives up his official position for a horse. The demands of a poetic work are incompatible with a normal life. Eurydice is hurt by what she considers neglect. She is shocked also by Heurtebise when she observes something supernatural in his behavior. Je vous croyais simple, she says to him. Je vous croyais de ma race, vous êtes de celle du cheval.
When the sentence dictated by the horse is first articulated at the beginning of the play, it sounds absurd. But it turns out to be literally true. In accepting the mysterious message, Orphée accepts his destiny. The secrecy of the poet’s fate is humorously depicted in the scene with the police commissioner at the end of the play. The commissaire mistakes Heurtebise for a tramp and is puzzled by all the traces of the supernatural in this drama of poetry and death. The opening scene of the quarrel between Orphée and Eurydice might easily be a musical comedy sketch; the scene in which Death operates on Eurydice might come from a mystery melodrama; the sacrifice of Orphée when he accepts his fate (la vie me taille, Heurtebise) is a tragic scene; and the commissioner’s scene at the end is burlesque. The coherence of the play is the language by which all aspects of the story are translated into theatrical images. The poetic conception of Orphée forces the spectators to accept a prophesying horse, an angelic window-repairer, and Death in the form of a lady wearing an evening dress.
Orphée contains no symbols. The supernatural is treated as if it were real. Since it was first performed by the Pitoeffs in 1926, it has been played countless times in university theatres throughout the world. Rainer Maria Rilke was so moved by Reinhardt’s production in Berlin in 1927 that he sent a congratulatory message to Cocteau in which he said that the myth was revealed to the French poet, who returned from it, his skin tanned as from the seashore. Dites à Jean Cocteau que je l’aime, lui seul à qui s’ouvre le mythe dont il revient hâlé comme du bord de la mer.
Whenever Cocteau chooses for a play a legend from antiquity, he interprets and rejuvenates it. Sophocles’ version of the Oedipus story emphasizes the fate of a noble family. Oedipus, son of Laius, is induced to kill his father, whom he did not recognize; to guess the riddle of the sphinx; and to marry his mother, whom he did not recognize. The revelation of his crimes moves him to blind himself and go into exile. On this subject matter Cocteau invents modern variations and allusions to our age.
In the first act of La Machine infernale, obviously inspired by the opening scene of Hamlet, soldiers are speaking on the ramparts of Thebes and waiting for the appearance of the ghost of the slain king. In spite of the soothsayer Tiresias, who knows what infernal machine the gods will set in motion when humans try to see too clearly, Jocasta insists upon seeing her husband’s ghost. But the ghost, who is trying to warn his people of the woes to come, cannot be heard.
In the second act, young Oedipus, who has just slain his father, comes into the presence of the sphinx. He knows that the one who conquers the sphinx will marry Jocasta and become king. The sphinx is in the form of a young girl who is weary of killing for the god Anubis and tries to make herself attractive to Oedipus. She reveals to him the secret of the riddle and thus allows him to slay her.
The third act is the marriage night, a bedroom scene of sinister forebodings. At every moment the mother and son, who do not know one another, almost come upon the truth of the situation, but a tragic ambiguity prevents this. The will of the gods keeps them within their blindness.
Seventeen years lapse between acts three and four. In accordance with the traditional legend, Oedipe discovers that he is the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother. In this act Cocteau closely follows Sophocles: Jocaste hangs herself, Oedipe gouges out his eyes, Antigone will accompany her father and lead him into exile.
The text of the play was written in 1932 and given its first performance in April 1934, an important date in Cocteau’s career because it initiated that part of his career as a successful playwright when he reached a fairly wide and enthusiastic audience. The earlier run of Orphée, put on by the Pitoeffs, had lasted only a few nights. La Voix humaine had been performed at the Comédie-Française, but it was a single act, with one character. Jouvet had accepted the text and was to put it on in his theatre of La Comédie-des-Champs-Elysées, and had scheduled the première for April. It was one of the fashionable theatres of the dav, with Dullin’s Atelier in Montmartre.
In January, Cocteau had been thinking of Jean-Pierre Aumont for the part of Oedipe. Aumont had already played the lead in a film: Le Lac aux Dames, and continued to play small parts in Jouvet’s company. He was surprised when Cocteau sent for him to come to his apartment on the rue Vignon. As soon as he entered Cocteau’s room, the writer said to him: “You will play Oedipe” (Vous serez mon Oedipe). Aumont, who knew that Jouvet was considering Charles Boyer and Pierre Blanchard for the role of Oedipe, blurted out: “But you don’t know me.” The answer was the same. “Vous serez mon Oedipe. Forget you know Jean-Pierre. Look at him differently. He is Oedipe.”
Rehearsals began in February. Cocteau had hoped to have Elvire Popesco as Jocaste, but she was engaged, and the part was taken by Marthe Régnier. (Twenty years later, Elvire Popesco did play Jocaste in the important revival with Jean Marais.) There were three months of rehearsals and eighty performances in 1934. Jouvet was as always a demanding, difficult director. Jean-Pierre Aumont has described his own entrance in the second act, as he walked down an inclined plateau with a mercurial light on him and came abruptly face to face with the sphinx. Christian Bérard, the set designer, had strewn bones over Oedipe’s entrance, the remains of the victims of the sphinx. Before the curtain each evening Aumont made a path for himself among the bones, for fear of stumbling, and each evening Bérard put them back into place, just before the curtain went up.
Cocteau was often backstage in the dressing rooms of the actors and carried on with them long discussions about the play and the performances and the reactions of the public. He used to say that he had not written a line of the play, that the text had been dictated to him one night, and it formed one unit, so mysteriously compact, that not one line could be changed. He proclaimed the paradox that a playwright composes one play, the actors perform another, and the public hears a third. Every theatrical success is a misunderstanding.
Cocteau became obsessed with the conviction that only the younger members of the audience liked the play, that only a thousand people had seen La Machine infernale, and they were the same ones who came back each night to the theatre. The play did create its fanatics, and there were fights among the students in the audience which recalled the performalices of Hernani, one hundred years earlier.
In the revival of La Machine infernale of 1954 Jeanne Moreau played the sphinx and gave to the famous monologue in Act II a brio that made the performance memorable. For Act III the setting resembled a cage for the nuptial scene between Queen Jocaste and Oedipe. It is the moment when, in Cocteau’s dramaturgy, destiny offers the royal couple a few hints of tragedy. The audience realizes this rather than the victims. Elvire Popesco, as Jocaste, wept over the wounded feet of Oedipe, and spoke in a strong foreign accent, and confused masculine and feminine genders. Jean Marais appeared almost as a Greek hero and used in his diction a peculiarity he had developed in his career, that of accenting the first syllable of important words. The two figures in Act III seemed to be caught in their royal mantles. The setting of Christian Bérard, the tension of the actors, the signs of disaster in the text, and even the diction of the queen and her son, made of this act a dramatic triumph. Twenty years had been necessary to make of the play a classic. The long speech of the sphinx was respected, and the novelties that Cocteau added to the legend were admired: the sphinx as a young girl falling in love with Oedipe, the marriage-night scene, the apparition of Jocaste at the end to guide Oedipe toward his destiny.
The “machine” is a timed machine, the hours of his illusions, which, when they are exhausted, destroy man with the suddenness of a machine stopped. The image represents a theological surveillance over a human life.
In the fourth act, Oedipe is the gambler who knows that he has lost. When he sets out accompanied by members of his family, forming almost a group of Pirandello characters, the spectators realize that the legend of Oedipe is beginning, that a mythical journey is going to lead him beyond life. However, throughout the first three acts, a sense of modern life is very much in the foreground. The machine is behind everything, and the machine is true reality, carefully concealed in the dark. But the conversation of the soldiers in the first act, heard against jazz music coming from the cafés below, might almost refer to the Berlin Wall or Vietnam. Jocaste is a matron from today’s society and Oedipe a young athlete. He illustrates what Freud has taught our world: that the birth trauma, the birth anxiety may be quelled in a man when he returns to his mother and makes of her an object of sexual pleasure.
The third act is essentially a scene of sleeping wherein Oedipe relives the anxiety of his birth. Only incest will calm the anxiety. The sphinx, encountered in the second act, was a premonitory symbol of the mother, in her character of strangler, in the threat she represents. And Oedipe, in conquering the sphinx, in Cocteau’s version, overcomes the first wave of anxiety in his life. The entire scene with Cocteau’s sphinx is the traumatic drama of birth as analyzed by Freud. When at the end of the act, Oedipe throws the body of the sphinx over his shoulder, he resembles the dancer in the rite of Dionysos. The skin of the goat or the ram is the once protective womb of the mother, which has now lost its usefulness. The role of the sphinx to which Cocteau gives such importance in La Machine infernale is ambiguous because as a young girl, she tries to turn Oedipe away from incest (épouse une femme plus jeune que toi), but at the same time she leads him to his fate, to his Nemesis.
With his play of 1937, Les Chevaliers de la table ronde, Cocteau declared he had broken his infatuation with Greece, but in reality he had simply moved from one myth to another. The fundamental preoccupation is the same in La Machine infernale and Les Chevaliers, which is that of the tragic writer, the implacable logic he sees in the all-powerful forces that control the destiny of men. Whatever transpires in his plays in terms of dramatic action is in terms of the absolute. He is in this sense one of the most traditionally tragic writers of modern France. In commenting on his own plays, he has often used the word supplice, and warns the spectators that they are going to watch not a spectacle in the usual sense, but a scene of torture.
In choosing the medieval subject of the knights of the round table, he was actually choosing a theme closely related to the story of Electra. When the hero Galaad repeats over and over that it is necessary to pay up for what has happened: il faut payer, payer, payer, he is stating the law of Cocteau’s dramaturgy, which is also the law of ancient Greek tragedy. In a superficial sense, the air of mysteriousness in Les Chevaliers de la table ronde is medieval, or reminiscent of the medieval. But he is profoundly concerned as a dramatist with the final moment, when, in the bursting of an explosion, the secret of men and the secret of things are supernaturally (or magically) revealed.
The elaborate scenic surprises and mystifications called for in the text are not absolutely necessary, because the enchantment is in the action. It does not depend on flashes of lightning and claps of thunder. The castle of Camelot is intoxicated and drugged by a network of lies. Merlin’s power derives from the power of deceit. Evil presides over the castle, in the adultery which is concealed and in the acts of betrayal which are disguised. When Galaad the pure knight appears, the evil spell is broken: the sun comes into view, the grass begins again to grow, and the birds sing. The Grail that had been lost is recovered by the white-armored knight. But the revelation of truth brings punishment and death. King Arthur slays his wife and the treacherous knight.
Les Chevaliers de la table ronde is a continuation of Cocteau’s oracular tradition in the theatre, so apparent in Orphée, Antigone, and La Machine infernale. The first act shows the castle under the spell of evil, and the inhabitants either accepting it or in revolt against it. Galaad (Parsifal) arrives and breaks the spell by projecting disorder into the lives of those who accept the spell. Act II reveals the source of the evil: Merlin the magician and his slave the demon Ginifer who can be transformed into any character. The occult force in Galaad is now set up against the occult force in Merlin. Act III is the disenchantment of the castle. With the restoration of truth, Galaad prepares to leave. The law of the poet-knight demands that he not stay where he is loved. The play is over with the king’s recovery, and the newly-restored health of the land.
Les Chevaliers is the most prodigal of Cocteau’s plays, the richest in diversity. Its subject, drawn from French medieval legends (as are Renaud et Armide, L’Eternel retour, and La Belle et la bête) is, in its deepest sense, the struggle between truth and falsehood being waged in a man’s heart. In the recovery of truth at the end of the play, King Arthur suffers the most and Galaad warns him that everything will be difficult, that truth is painful at first. As he looks at the slain bodies of Lancelot and the queen, he declares his preference for real corpses over a false life: J’aime mieux de vrais morts qu’une fausse vie.
The demon Ginifer, as slave of Merlin, is invisible and appears only in the forms of Gauvain, the queen, and Galaad. These three characters are at times true and at other times false, and these incarnations of Ginifer provide the burlesque scenes of the play. Ginifer is Cocteau’s dramatic invention. His treatment of Arthur’s suffering is also an innovation. It increases steadily as a feverish malady throughout the play, and breaks out into a tragic ending. His hallucinations are made real for the spectators because they hear what he hears: the love dialogue between Lancelot and the queen.
After bringing up his public on Greek and medieval themes, Cocteau presented them with a melodrama, Les Parents terribles (1937), with Parisian characters dressed like Parisians of today. Disorder prevails in the Paris apartment. The mother Yvonne spends her life in a dressing gown, between her unmade bed and her bathroom. Her love for her son has exiled her from everything else in life. Her husband is a mild, flabby inventor whose inventions have not enriched him. His sister-in-law is an Electra, with the passion for bringing order to everything. Unmarried, she lives with the family and helps it in every way. These three characters are upset at the beginning of the play over the son’s absence. When Michel does come, he is eager to announce his engagement to a charming girl, who is a book binder. Yvonne explodes with jealousy. The scene is violent, especially because the girl accepts the attention and financial help of another man. It turns out that Michel’s father, Georges, is his rival, and that Electra-Léo, his sister-in-law, lends him the money he gives to Madeleine.
The second act is the meeting of the family with Madeleine. Her protector insists that she invent the existence of another lover, a younger one, in order to break off the marriage with Michel. Michel’s despair fills most of Act III, and it is of such magnitude that the family agrees to permit the marriage. Yvonne commits suicide and order is restored with two marriages in view: Michel and Madeleine, and Georges and Léo who has been in love with Georges for twenty years.
The film of Les Parents terribles (1948) is practically the same work as the play. The text is the same and the actors are the same as those who created the parts (Jean Marais as Michel, Gabrielle Dorziat as Léo, Yvonne de Bray as Yvonne). The art of the camera makes them more human within the walls of the small apartment. La roulotte (gypsy wagon), as the apartment is called, is the confined space suitable for the three unities, and the camera does not focus on any outside landscape. In the theatre one is always aware of the wings on either side of the stage, but in the film the city is outside the apartment, unseen and containing the life of the city. There is no time for anything outside the intense concentrated action of the play. The time it takes for the performance coincides exactly with the time of the action. When all is over, la roulotte becomes a real Gypsy wagon, and it rumbles off with a tinkling of bells. Poignantly, Jean Cocteau’s voice speaks to it.
In the guise of a boulevard melodrama, Les Parents terribles has affiliations with the Greek world of order and disorder. The figure of the mother, in her willful childishness, in the anarchy she portrays, is Antigone. Tante Léo and the young girl Madeleine are representatives of social order and they together bear the responsibilities of Creon. The boy Michel, hovering midway between the anarchic spirit of his mother and the social order of his aunt and fiancée, is the involuntary murderer, not of his father Laius, but of his mother Jocaste.
La Machine à écrire, written in 1941, was according to Cocteau’s own harsh judgment a “disaster.” But the first two acts are so well constructed that the weakness of the third act can be forgiven. The plot is complicated, and based upon the theory that the main problem in playwriting is to create a misunderstanding. A small provincial town is upset by a flood of anonymous letters. A police inspector has come from Paris to find the guilty person. In the home of the inspector’s friend Didier, three members of the family claim to be the writer of the anonymous letters. Cocteau gives a picture of French provincial life just before the collapse of France in 1941, with its hypocritical attitudes and vices. Yet the interest in the play centers about the discovery of the guilty person.
Cocteau exploits the intrigue by depicting every character in the play as engaged in some kind of imposture. By indolence or by vanity they construct patterns of deceit. The play becomes the unmasking of the fundamental personality of the characters. The structure is so imposing, so involved, that the play is not able to sustain it. The complexity comes from the mythomanie actions of the young people, Maxime and Margot, who do not cease pretending to others and to themselves. In their behavior, it is never clear what is true and what is false. It is never clear where imagination ends and where reality begins.
L’Aigle à deux têtes, the Cocteau play most reminiscent of Hugo’s melodrama, was only a partial success. It is an intelligent but far too cerebral attempt at playwriting, a virtuoso piece which seems more the vehicle for an actress than a play capable of holding audiences in successive generations. There are scenes of pure theatricality, such as the encounter of the queen with the intruder, the young revolutionary resembling her dead husband.
In the writing of this play which was obviously destined for the large theatre-going public, Cocteau omitted all elements that might have seemed strange or disconcerting or obscure. L’Aigle à deux têtes is a love drama, with extreme and violent peripeteia. It is almost the story of Ruy Blas, of a tragic love between a queen and a man of the people, of a conflict between love and the powers of the state. The queen’s husband has been killed by a terrorist on the very day of their marriage. Since then, she has lived alone. In the first act she is about to begin another evening with the ghost of her husband, when shots are fired and a wounded man comes in through the window. He resembles the dead king. He is an anarchist who had come to kill the queen. What happens is inevitable: the queen falls in love with the anachist, whom she hides in the castle, and the young anarchist will not kill his queen but falls in love with her. Cocteau has written, as he said himself, “the story of an anarchist queen and an anarchist with a royal soul.” The established order of the court prevents a revolution that would have assured the happiness of the couple. The young man poisons himself and with this action the final and most striking scene of the play begins. The queen feigns scorn and hatred of her lover until he stabs her. This is what she wanted. As they die, she tells him that she had lied.
Edwige Feuillère, who created the part of the queen, brought out the passion and pathos of this final scene. The synchronization of the two deaths on the stage of the Hébertot Theatre was impeccably conceived and carried out by Mme Feuillère and Jean Marais. And they repeated their triumph in the film version where the text, especially in the final scene, remained substantially the same.
The opening scene, at night, with its storm, the young queen alone, the sudden appearance at the window of a man who seems to be the king’s ghost, are all elements of a romantic melodrama. The first act is a monologue of the queen. Stanislas, when he enters the room, refuses to answer her. She is a mythomaniac, who makes a tragedy out of her life and enacts this tragedy even when she is alone. The second act belongs to Stanislas who passionately unmasks the queen and reveals her pride and her play-acting. His violence in the second act is an answer to the queen’s histrionics in the first act. The third act is the intervention of destiny. The final scene in which the queen plays the part of an enraged woman is the full portrait of the heroine. She is the actress, the monstre sacré, who convincingly pretends to be scornful and hateful.
Cocteau had announced Bacchus, first performed in December 1951, as a thesis play, but actually it is not that. It turned out to be the continuation of Les Enfants terribles. The three characters: the brother, the sister, and friend live in the sixteenth century, at the time of Luther, in a small German city. At this time, the friend—Hans—has the leading part. The sister becomes the mistress of Hans after refusing his advances. In the seduction, the girl seduced is in love with the seducer. And at the end, the brother kills Hans in order to spare him the horror of the stake or the shame of retribution.
Each year an inhabitant of the town is elected “Bacchus” and given full royal powers for a week. This time, the town simpleton is elected. This Hans, however, has simulated his idiocy. Once in power, he announces that he will build in one week the ideal city. The plans he makes are vaguely reminiscent of Rousseau’s Contrat social. But the play is more concerned with the revolutionist than with the revolution. The adversary of Hans-Rousseau is a cardinal who, like Voltaire, has scathing wit and is secretly without faith. The old Rousseau-Voltaire controversy is merely one episode in the eternal quarrel between the young and the old, between idealists and rationalists. The second act is largely given over to the debate between Hans and the cardinal. It is more a debate between two temperaments than between two systems. The gentleness of the cardinal has a terrifying quality about it, and his intelligence, too, is awesome. In the debate, the enfants terribles lose to those in authority. Even the poor are in league with the rich, and at the end of the week, the crowd is waiting to seize Hans and burn him.
Bacchus is by no means one of the major texts of Cocteau. The first act is stilted and weak, the preaching throughout the play is excessive, the changes of heart in some of the characters are unexplained. At no point do the spectators imagine that Hans will win out; if this had been the case, it would have been highly dramatic. Blasphemy is not easy to make real and sustain. Hans has neither hate nor enough love to make his curse efficacious.
The quarrel that ensued between Mauriac and Cocteau over Bacchus seems today important only as an episode in the career of the playwright. It flared up a few days after the opening performance of Bacchus, when in a letter Mauriac published in Le Figaro Littéraire on December 29, 1951, he denounced the play as an attack on the Church. Whereas other critics pointed out the verboseness of the play, Mauriac seemed to be alone in his worry over the anti-religious implications. It is a play of ideas where two truths are opposed. Hans is the pure anarchist without a sense of order and strategy. The cardinal demonstrates the dangers of anarchy and points out the contradictions in Hans’ arguments. The tragedy at the end is the solitude of the genius as he faces the crowd that has turned against him. The cardinal was right, because outside, the stake and the punishment are being prepared. It is both a fatal and a willed death. The hero gives the orders until the moment when the power which he himself has liberated, takes over and controls him.
In recent years, certain critics, and notably Pierre Dubourg, have attempted to give an essentially philosophical interpretation to Cocteau’s plays and have resented the use of such a word as jongleur as applied to Cocteau in his capacity of dramatist. But the term jongleur does not necessarily have a pejorative connotaton. It refers to the apparent facility of Cocteau’s writing, to the wit and ballet-like quality of many of the scenes. It would be unwise to deny these qualities that make up a large part of Cocteau’s originality and style. In Orphée, tragedy is very much allied with the burlesque in the characters of the horse and Angel Heurtebise. An explanation, in philosophical terms, of the devices used by Cocteau in his dramaturgy tends to weaken their charm. This “charm” is precisely a spell which guards the seccret of beings and things. Poetry is a mystery for Cocteau and not a demonstration. Heurtebise and mirrors do not lend themselves easily to a traditional analysis.
Cocteau mimics so easily and transforms so well that one forgets he owes more to his immediate predecessors in the little theatre movement (or the poetic theatre) than to Sophocles. The dramatic innovations of Jarry and Apollinaire are used by him. The wit of his insights, the flash of his metaphors, the fluency of his style carry the best of his scenes. He uses what is at hand and mixes disparate, contradictory elements. The play Orphée is a recasting of the Greek myth, but it is also Cocteau’s conversion to Catholicism, announced in the guardian angel Heurtebise, a nod of recognition to Jacques Maritain. The angel is a glazier, and in his Lettre, he calls Maritain a creature of glass.